Three Women on Love during War: Anica Savić Rebac, Olga Freidenberg, Edith Stein

Part 3

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Core text: Anica Savić Rebac and Olga Freidenberg


The parallels between the two contemporary lives and works, those of Anica Savić Rebac and Olga Freidenberg, the individual intellectual histories, are striking: That is why I am adding the tertium comparationis, Edith Stein, apart.


Both Olga Freidenberg and Anica Savić Rebac were classicists. They may have had a common influential predecessor, Polish classicist Theodore Zielinski, who cooperated with Anica Savić Rebac’s colleagues in Revue internationale des études balkaniques (RIEB), published in Belgrade in the 30s by Milan Budimir and Petar Skok (1932-38), as a playground for innovative approaches to Antiquity and Balkan history, with a strong anti-fascist and pro-Yugoslav orientation. Thus, positions of Anica Savić Rebac, in her link with RIEB, and Olga Freidenberg, in her avant-garde formalist surroundings, have several common features in researching Antiquity: Interest in folklore and comparative insight, semantic and semiotic analysis, clear political investment (against traditionalism, favoring democratic aspects and values, a “zing” of pro-communist sympathies added to that) and linking Ancient phenomena to their own contemporary situation, including a certain “feminist practice” represented both by men (for instance the editor of RIEB and colleague, Milan Budimir) and by women (Anica Savić Rebac, Olga Freidenberg). By “feminist practice,” I understand a position of taking for granted women’s equality in everyday life and in career and, thematically, going for the toughest and most authoritarian disciplines and academic circles – Ancient studies, philosophy, literary theory, religion and folklore, with an energy that we could define today as deconstructive. Anica Savić Rebac took an active attitude, writing about forgotten feminists from her native region, and taking part in the Association of Women Academics after WWII (13). Olga Freidenberg, living in a new culture in which feminist ideas were at least proclaimed popular in the early revolutionary days, was almost obsessed with tracing Ishtar, the Mediterranean goddess of fertility, in many rituals and texts: Both Anica Savić Rebac and Olga Freidenberg had similar conclusions about the double nature of Phaidra (from Euripides’ play Hippolytos), as a possible ritual memory of the old goddess. Curiously enough, both Anica Savić Rebac’s and Olga Freidenberg’s work is saved thanks to their feminine friends and relations: Anica Savić Rebac’s friend happened to be the Director of the University Library in Belgrade, where her archives are still kept; her student, a woman, published her manuscript on Ancient aesthetics a year after her death; two women (I was one of them) took care of publishing her complete works, 1984-1988, and two women took care of preserving, opening, and handing over Olga Freidenberg’s work for publishing.


Meta-text: Anica Savić Rebac and Olga Freidenberg

But the most fascinating is their synchronous work in theorizing love in Antiquity, that is Eros. Anica Savić Rebac’s work is more complex and theoretically refined: She forged a term to denote the philosophy of love, erotology, which might be attractive even today, in the situation of hyper-production of terms and jargon. She published her PhD thesis on erotology in 1932, but worked on the topic through the 1940s, enlarging the picture to include mysticism and Judeo-Christian folklore, to bogomils of Bosnia in the Middle Ages (a dualistic heresy that was extinguished by Serbian kings, but continued in Bosnia) up to the concept of love in the mystic poetry of P. P. Njegoš. That is why she needed interpretations of Milton’s Paradise Lost (and one of the contemporary interpreters happened to be Denis Saurat), and of Kabala. She invigorated her interpretation of Eros and the state in her book on Ancient aesthetics, which contains an outline of the erotology of Plato and Aristophanes. Let me just give a taste of her way of thinking, in the example of her imagining what art could be, had Plato’s aesthetic model ever come to life: It would be most similar to Piet Mondrian’s paintings…


Anica Savić Rebac discusses different phases and different forms of Eros in the god’s ritual varieties – diverging and converging gender constructs and social functions – from the cosmic egg (feminine) to wind and fire daemon (masculine), and military and gymnastic friendship protector (homosexual). This double, or multiple, nature of Eros goes through a serious political modification in the Athenian democracy, ending in two forms (dual Eros): Eros – the erotic passion as a danger for the inner state’s stability, be it male or female, and Eros, the wisdom master, the one who provides for civic values, or “social virtues,” as Anica Savić Rebac calls them. This Eros takes care so that uncontrollable sexuality does not create stasis, civil war. She attributes this development to Euripides and Socrates and their influence in Athens. Anica Savić Rebac’s approach relies on semantic history, folklore elements connected to rituals, and the history of ideas, along with the “classic” European philosophical practice. Her civic Eros, presented in the model of a minimal education for Athenian citizens, in her book on Ancient aesthetics has, in fact, a distinctive anti-war political meaning. This is the most delicate part of Anica Savić Rebac’s discussion, since she cannot deny that war was conceived as one of the activities of the Athenian democracy – any war against enemies outside, be it for reasons of colonial expansion and supremacy, against other Greeks, or against “barbarians” and other non-Greeks. In fact, as it is quite clear from Pericles’ speech over the dead Athenians killed in the Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian war (as rendered by Thucydides), making war is one of the basic democratic activities of a male citizen, and the line of equal Athenian heavy foot soldiers (hoplites) its main visual presentation (isokephaleia, or all the heads in the same line). And at the same time, stasis, civil war, is considered the ultimate evil for the polis.


To bypass this problem, Anica Savić Rebac insisted on the apparent simplicity of a citizens’ education: Little grammar, geometry, music and swimming. Preparing for the war remains in the area of sports, that is competition, and rites de passage. This ambivalence allowed her to focus her interest on the first cluster of civic education. Many years later, Pierre Vidal Naquet and Alain Schnapp researched this ambivalence in detail, and came out with groundbreaking results on complex practices and representations of identity-construct in Antiquity. A good portion of Schnapp’s seminal work is about the anthropology of love… In her later work on Ancient aesthetics, in which she had to oppose openly Croce’s negation of such theorizing in Antiquity, the relation peace-love is easily integrated into her reading of immanent aesthetic theories contained in different Ancient texts – epics, lyrics, drama, philosophy. No wonder her favorite author in this study is Aristophanes, who is a partisan of peace, has respect for sexual needs of women – even older women, as in his comedy Ecclesiazousae – and ridicules Athenian male citizens as obsessed with war and power. Her work on aesthetics in Antiquity, done during the war and published after her death in 1953, relates as a meta-text also to the situation in war-torn Yugoslavia, where different nationalist groups were fighting each other, forming both fascist and anti-fascist coalitions. She was undoubtedly in favor of the latter.


Olga Freidenberg’s analysis of Eros is more fragmentary, incorporated in her study on Ancient and earlier (in her terms folkloric) mime. She constructs Socrates (in Plato’s Symposion) as a “mask,” a dissimulator, but with a “shining divinity” inside him, the one who can exclusively reflect on the double nature of Eros. As a master-obstetrician of truth (maieutike techne), Socrates must have a female double (Diotima), and must operate in a specific genre, defined by irony and parody. If the Eros in the state is “controlled” by double-minded thinkers, who can combine distance and passion, irony and mystic conviction, then we could make a linkage in interpretation. This Eros is adapted to the case of war through which Olga Freidenberg had to live: An invisible enemy outside, and a single-minded enemy of constraining ideology within, which can be fought only with a double sense and irony. The passionate and destructive Eros, the war Eros, in her case, originated from restricted/censored thinking, while the state-constructive Eros is his opposite.


Let me plunge into an anthropological aspect of their position on Eros: During the war, Anica Savić Rebac was surrounded by people who could turn into killers without any previous sign, and in a precarious situation of foreign occupation. Olga Freidenberg was living in an unpredictable situation, with denouncers following the moves of the powerful, and at the same time in impossible conditions (hunger, cold, danger, and disease), imposed by an otherwise invisible enemy. The state-constructive Eros invented by Anica Savić Rebac had to take care of the inner instability, in order to resist the danger coming from outside. The state-constructive Eros invented by Olga Freidenberg had to destabilize the paranoid ideological unity, in order to win over the outside danger, and in order to regain its civic qualities. In both cases, the Ancient Eros was considered the affair of the state, a public and social construct, with ritual roots and imaging, but also a simulacrum, or projection of an imminent political desire. This private Love-Eros was, for both of them, something public in the distant European past, and it could be re-established as such in time of need, for instance in the massive catastrophe of the world war. The necessary corrections in the concept of a citizen diverge, of course, in the two cases: But there was a synchronous turn in the thinking of the two women in the same discipline and in the similar context.


Hypo-text, core text and meta-text: Edith Stein

How does Edith Stein fit into this equation? While Olga Freidenberg and Anica Savić Rebac remained unjustly unknown, even in their own disciplines, Edith Stein is globally known: She is a saint. She was born into a Jewish family in Breslau, in 1891, studied philosophy, and was Husserl’s assistant in Freiburg. Her PhD thesis concludes in proposing empathy as a specific form of knowledge. We are not far from the concept of love, but Edith Stein would follow a different path. After reading the autobiography of Saint Theresa d’Aquilla, she converted to Catholicism, just as many years before, Husserl turned from Judaism to Protestantism. Changes of churches and religions are certainly a distinctive European feature, when it comes to the history of intellectuals, and it will not be tackled here.


First among Dominicans, and then among Carmelites in Köln, Edith Stein continued her philosophical writing, trying to connect phenomenology with different Christian philosophies. She fled to Holland in 1938, because of the Nazi threat, but was taken from the monastery into Auschwitz in 1942, where she was gassed with her sister the same year. She was beatified in 1987, and proclaimed a saint in 1998. Her letter to Pope Pius XII, written in 1933, was released from the Vatican archives to be published immediately, in February 2003. One line of research would be to follow the empathy in her writings, and also to try and link phenomenology to semiotic and anthropological approach, which can be done, as in the case of Ernst Cassirer. The other line of research is somewhat awkwardly obvious – and that is the concept of Christian love, which is, by definition, related to public domain, civic construct, and the State, but is deprived of any relation to sexuality and desire. From Edith’s letter to the Pope, this aspect of Christian love is highly politicized, implicating the responsibility of the Catholic Church, if it does not react politically to Nazism: If Christian love toward the other – the Jews, is neglected, and if the other is not protected, it may cease to function as the motor of the Catholic teaching, which is public and state-related.


There is another thin thread to follow in the work of Edith Stein, exemplified in the book published after her death, on women. Although a woman’s love can be only motherly love, according to Edith Stein, there is a lot of debate on women’s careers, women’s choices, and women’s institutions. In fact, Edith’s book is a seminal work in what we today call “feminist theology.” Whichever way we think today of her theorizing and the practice of Christian love during the war, with the most tragic consequences, Edith Stein’s example is one of acting on behalf of love and performing love against the war, including many aspects of civic and state construct of values still in use today in the overall pacifist thinking and rhetoric. Therefore, she presents a necessary mirroring counterpart of the openly atheist approaches of Anica Savić Rebac and Olga Freidenberg, but also the most clearly-structured and the most politically-efficient relation between peace and love. This, of course, is secured by the different epistemological status of their respective objects of theorization – love. Edith Stein operates within the framework of sustainable and obtainable truth – Christian truth, while the other two operate in the unmapped territory of knowledge. Their point of convergence is, however, in public discourse which, for the two academics, always remains in the domain of desire, while for Edith Stein it represents an area of possible/controlled invasion. Restrictions for her come only from organizational hierarchy, which includes gender, too. Although remaining on different sides of the stream, the academics and the nun could not only easily communicate, if given any chance during their lifetimes, but also politically cooperate, in favor of peace and against the war, using love as the central notion.


The three women never met, never wrote to each other, and probably never heard of each other, either. But their point of convergence can be easily reconstructed – and functional – in modern genders studies and feminist theorizing and practices today.


The three women reflecting on love at the time of (the same) war, which one of them did not survive, have opened some still-relevant epistemological questions pertaining to philosophy, anthropology and history of love, but also gender studies and feminism. The contexts of communist, enlightened Catholic and socialist ideologies of their social and political environment conditioned their “feminist practice,” or self-understood feminism, which can be read through their hypo-, core and meta-texts, but is not the very subject of their reflection – while love certainly is. The contextual narratives can be used in interpreting Anica Savić Rebac’s and Olga Freidenberg’s explanations of the Ancient Greek stately Eros, the positive and the citizen-forming ones. They both postulate love as a cultural and social construct, not only “translatable” into, but originating from ideologies and accommodated politics. The historic link with rituals, in the case of Olga Freidenberg, does not turn toward “nature” as explanation, but serves as one of the tools to build a convincing framework of anthropological features (“structure” avant la lèttre), in order to read super-positions or a chronology of Ancient concepts of love. Anica Savić Rebac historicizes less, in order to conceptualize anthropological features of love in Antiquity into a system of thought, following the model of history of ideas. If Olga Freidenberg precedes structuralism, Anica Savić Rebac, in a way, precedes new historicism. Neither include psychoanalytical or symbolic approaches to Eros, but insist on the social and political aspects of love. For both women authors, symbols present phases of semantic/semiotic history, or condensed lemmata in an imaginary dictionary of ideas.


Edith Stein, on the other hand, proposes a clear and direct concept of (Christian) love as a political tool, restrained by the clerical context and by its recipients, but at the same time following a clear line of critique of ideological and ethical inconsistencies within an uncontested conceptual framework in the intellectual history of Europe, exemplified by Luther’s or even Trotsky’s “believer’s criticism.” Anica Savić Rebac and Olga Freidenberg seem to have had a hidden agenda of deconstructing their contemporary ideological narratives by introducing a new and quite paradoxical political narrative, that of love in the distant past. Addressing ideological and intellectual circles that seemed to accept the idea of constant innovation and change, they proposed a subversive side-plan that would enlarge the space of civic consciousness and action. Both their Eros have democratic spirits of expanding political and civic practices beyond the limits defined by present politics and ideological narratives. Edith Stein’s love does not connect to democracy, but to insider rules and proclaimed principles. All three, Anica Savić Rebac, Olga Freidenberg and Edith Stein, challenge philosophy and humanities in general, to rethink one of the least-debated and largely-minimized topics, love, while their personal life stories invite us to look at many tragic aspects of otherness – geographical, cultural, gender-defined, linguistic.



Related reading:


Ludwig, Paul W., Eros and Polis. Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Mossé, Claude, La femme en Grèce antique, Albin Michel, Paris, 1983, also Dupont, Florence, L'érotisme masculin dans la Rome antique, Belin, Paris, 2001.


Soranus’ Gynecology, Tr. by O. Temkin and A.F.Guttmacher, repr., John Hopkins University Press, 1991.


Alciphron, a Greek author who wrote fictitious letters of courtesans, parasites, fishermen and peasants, placing them in the IV ct. B.C. Motives are taken from the so called New Comedy (Menander as the representative author, also appearing in the letters). See The Letters of Alciphron, Aelian and Philostratus, ed. E.H.Warmington and A.R.Benner, Loeb Classical Library, No 383, Harvard University Press, 1989.


Lissarrague, François, Greek Vases: The Athenians and Their Images, Riverside Book Company, 2001.


Kostić, Laza, Osnove lepote u svetu s osobitim obzirom na srpske narosne pesme, Novi Sad, 1880 (Foundations of Beauty in the World, with a Special Attention to Serbian Folk Songs)


Braund, David and Wilkins, John, Athenaeus and His World: Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire, University of Exeter Press, 2001. In the Foreword by Glenn Bowersock, an innovative approach in reading Athenaeus as an author, not only as a reference, is proposed.


Bracht Branham, Robert, Bakhtin and the Classics (Rethinking Theory), Northwestern University Press, 2001.


West, Rebecca, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. A Journey through Yugoslavia, Macmillan, repr. 1982 (fust published 1942). A lame, heavily cut and censored version of her book appeared at the beginning of the crisis in Yugoslavia, fostering a very pro-Serbian version of the work. The translator, Nikola Koljević, former university professor and specialist in English literature, was a close collaborator of Radovan Karadžić in Bosnia, and committed suicide in 1996. in the Serbian para-state in the region.


On the reception of Thomas Mann and translations by Anica Savić Rebac see Tomislav Bekić, “Thomas Mann in Jugoslawien”, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift, Universität Jena, R.25, Jg.1976, H.3, p. 385-393; on Mann’s quotation of Savić Rebac’ work, see idem, “Anica Savić Rebac i Tomas Man”, Zbornik Matice srpske za književnost i jezik, Novi Sad, XXVII/1, 1979, p. 81-90.


Olga Freidenberg, Image and Concept: Mythopoetic Roots of Literature, ed. By Nina Braginskaia and Kevin Moss, with a Foreword by Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, Harwood Academic Publishers, in a series Signs/Text/Culture: Studies in Slavic and Comparative Semiotics, 1997.


The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg 1910-1954, ed. by Elliot Mossman, tr. by E. Mossman and M. Wettlin, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1982.


Hasan Rebac published a number of very progressive articles on the position of Muslim women in a new secular society in the 20’ and 30’.


Anica Savić Rebac, Predplatonska erotologija, Književna zajednica, Novi Sad, 1984, p. 90.


Loraux, Nicole, The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, Zone Books, 2001. In her book, published earlier in French, Nicole Loraux examines the case of statis in the Athenian democracy.


Vidal Naquet, Pierre, The Black Hunter : Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998; Schnapp, Alain, Le chasseur et la cité: Chasse et érotique en Grèce ancienne, Albin Michel, Paris, 1997.


Stein, Edith, Die Frau: Ihre Aufgabe nach natur un Gnade, verlag Herder, Freiburg – E. Nauwelaerts, Louvain, 1959.

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.